Christian Universities Struggle With Teaching Legitimate Science

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With all the hubbub about Comfort’s upcoming distribution of his version of The Origin of Species on college campuses, Inside Higher Ed has an in-depth piece this week on the teaching of evolution at Christian universities across our country.

It makes me sick.

Some professors, with support from prominent scientists, are trying to defend the teaching of evolution and to make it safe for those who teach biology and the Bible to talk about ways in which belief in evolution need not represent an abandonment of faith. Many Christian colleges have statements of faith — which in some cases must be followed by all students and faculty members — that endorse the literal truth of the Bible or of specific parts of the Bible (six literal days of creation, for example, or that Adam and Eve are the parents of all humans). So teaching evolution as scientific fact, which would just be taken for granted at many non-Christian colleges and universities, raises all kinds of delicate issues.

I hate hate hate how this article, perhaps in an attempt to be respectful of religion, presents evolution as a belief. It’s not a belief. It’s not something you can even believe in. You either understand it or you don’t. That’s it. That’s how it works.

This article, to its credit, does manage to capture one of my biggest frustrations in higher education. Without actually calling it what it is, this piece reveals to us just how dogmatic these “universities” are in their beliefs and the extent to which that compromises the education they are able to provide.

Richard Colling, who experienced controversy over teaching evolution during his tenure at Olivet Nazarene University, offers the following:

“If the colleges don’t change, no one will take us seriously. If we require students to check their intellect at the door of our churches and colleges, they will not come in.”

Well no shit! How is it that an institution that calls itself a university and commits itself to the pursuit of knowledge and intellect could favor unprovable, unfounded beliefs over science, knowledge, and the progress of human intellect? And we just smile and say, “Oh, how nice that they have a university of their own!” It angers me so much that a degree from such a place might be worth as much as the degrees I have earned.

The story wouldn’t be complete without Francis Collins and his promotion of “spirituality.”

Much of the push for change is coming through the BioLogos Foundation, a group founded by Francis Collins to promote “the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms seeking harmony between these different perspectives.”

Tell me, please, how anyone searches for truth in the spiritual realm. What are the parameters? How is it measured? How is it tested? This is faulty thinking for a scientist to allow and promote. It makes the initial assumption that there even could be truth in the spiritual realm, in addition to the assumption that there even could be a spiritual realm to begin with. I think it’s disgraceful and insulting to the field of higher education.

“We want to help the church and colleges come to terms with Darwin’s theory and not feel threatened by it,” said Karl Giberson, president of BioLogos, a professor at Eastern Nazarene College, and director of the Forum on Faith and Science, at Gordon.

I don’t get this at all. Why do we care whether they feel “threatened”? This isn’t how knowledge works. We take what we have learned and incorporate it into what we already know. Anyone who refuses to do that is the threat. Universities that have dictated that they refuse to teach what we know to be essentially scientific fact are the real threat to our society. Why do we accredit them as degree-granting institutions and then be very cautious about holding them to the most basic standards of learning?

It is “difficult to the point of impossible, said Giberson, to look at the scientific evidence, and believe that creation of the Earth and its creatures took place in six days. The difficulty for many Christian colleges, he said, is that they have statements of faith that require such a belief.

Welcome to what we’ve known for a good 150 years. Why is it more important to uphold “statements of faith” than to teach legitimate science?

Giberson said that the statements of faith of many colleges pose a real challenge for those wanting to teach evolution. Many colleges, he said, “would not create a mission statement that would make a fundamentalist feel unwelcome,” and so may end up making scientists feel unwelcome. As a result, he said, there are plenty of scientists who teach at such institutions who teach evolution, but quietly.

This kind of educational culture is a desecration on the institution of academia.

The article goes on for a while and describes some specific examples of schools “struggling” with teaching evolution. I want to share one more quote from the president of Gordon College. I find this extremely disturbing as an educator.

R. Judson Carlberg, Gordon’s president, said that the first question he received this year when he spoke to the parents of new students was from a woman who wanted to know if her daughter would get an F in classwork “if she holds to a late creation theory of literal fixed days.” Carlberg said he answered by saying that the college “isn’t in the business of indoctrination,” and that such a student has no assurance of an F or an A. “I said she’s not going to get an F if she can mount a strong argument in favor of it, but if she mounts a weak argument, she will be forced to go back.”

Let’s be perfectly clear: there is no scientific argument for any creation theory and more importantly, any suggestion of “literal fixed days” would be totally bogus. I don’t know if Carlberg is trying to just appease some of the fundamentalist clientele, but I find it extremely disconcerting that he would even consider that a student might be able to make a grade-earning argument for something that has no scientific legitimacy. What does that say about Gordon College? What does that say about the standard of education at Gordon College? I know people who went to Gordon College who are bright and capable, but I seriously question the credibility (and accredibility) of institutions with such lax educational standards.

As I have said before, the institution has to choose a priority: education or beliefs. If the required beliefs of an institution compromise the institution’s ability to provide an education, then I don’t think it’s fair to call them “religiously-affiliated schools.” They are “education-affiliated churches” and do not deserve the same respect or credibility as schools who maintain a consistently high standard for scientific education.

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There are 9 Comments to "Christian Universities Struggle With Teaching Legitimate Science"

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Victor Kamutzki and Maia, Zack Ford. Zack Ford said: ZFb: "Christian Universities Struggle With Teaching Legitimate Science" http://is.gd/4li87 #atheism #highered […]

  • Rick Colling says:

    Hi Zack,

    Sorry you are so upset about the article, but believe me, I understand what you are saying. I even agree with much or your commentary. Indeed, much of my dilemma over the past three years was that I was asking/calling the Christian University where I had taught Microbiology/Immunology/and Molecular Biology for 28 years to validate their representation of themselves as a bona-fide university by engaging in an open and professional discussion of these matters. And as relates to the AAUP and Academic freedom, to leave me as the professor of the non-majors biology course alone as I taught the undergraduates the best understanding of biology and science available. Alas, my open acknowledgment of evolution was more than some of the scientifically challenged fundamentalist board members could stomach. When a university administration caves to ignorance, it is indeed a sad day for that university.

    Your sentiments are understandable. And believe me when I say that I share a deep contempt – evidently shared by Jesus – for those who profess one standard of conduct and professional scholarly acumen, yet in actuality, live their lives in ways inconsistent with these positions. Many of us who call ourselves Christians are embarrassed and ashamed of such conduct. That kind of hypocrisy is what unbelievers simply find unbelievable!
    And who can blame them?

    While it is tempting to simply say that these misguided uneducated fundamentalist Christians should just get a clue, ie. get a real education, and this would fix everything, I believe it is a much more complex and convoluted challenge. I, like you recognize that science must be free; not subject to religious veto!
    However, I would like to respectfully suggest that as relates to this subject, it is difficult to separate head knowledge from emotions. The truth is that they really do go together, and in some cases – as here, the emotional baggage that these folks carry regarding evolution is a serious force to be reckoned with. It leads to irrational positions which perpetually foster defensiveness and hostility.

    I often shared with my students this thought: “It is almost impossible to believe something you do not want to believe!” Think about it, if the brain has been taught (brainwashed if you will) that evolution is evil and contrary to belief in God; and if this has been done in the context of religious upbringing where faith and belief in God is regarded as the ultimate value, then what other conclusion can the mind come to? In other words, the position was posed as God OR science/evolution.

    In this scenario, anyone coming from a conservative Christian faith background would certainly want to come down on the right side of this question. But the tragedy, and as is now occurring at these Christian colleges, is that those (like myself and the BioLogos Foundation folks) who refuse to abide by this false dichotomy and attempt to harmonize matters of faith and science, are villfied (sp?) and cast out of the fellowship. A pastor friend of mine called these critics of evolution “Taliban Christians” because they will go to any and all ends to destroy any voice acknowledging evolution. I know this first-hand.

    In reality, modern understanding of evolution does raise some VERY difficult questions for a few of the most fundamental premises of Christian faith (Forget the old earth/young earth stuff which are boring). This fact scares many conservative Christian theologians – not only because they do not understand it one iota, but because it threatens to undermine a couple of the foundational elements of their faith (at least as they propound it) that they have been taught, and more importantly to them places them in the position of having to admit that they may be wrong on some nuances of the faith. Heaven forbid!

    Unfortunately for them, the evidence/knowledge base simply keeps marching on: The most recent DNA evidence including pseudogenes, Endogenous retroviruses, and human Chromosomal rearrangements definitively prove common ancestry among man and lower animals. It is indisputable to any reasonable witness. This is where I believe you are right: Education could help here. But as you know, changed thinking can only take place in minds open to change. Alas…

    So it probably seems that I am going both directions here, so let me summarize: The questions are much more complex than they appear on the surface.

    In your text above, you said, “Why do we care whether they feel “threatened”? ”

    I will tell you why I care. It is because after teaching at this Christian University for nearly 30 years, the students are definitely worth the effort. They are real people with a real desire to learn and understand these complex matters. The emotional baggage impeding their learning that they bring with them to college is not their fault. They deserve to hear the real stuff. But they do not have to have their faith, their beliefs, and values destroyed by the reality of the science. Love and compassion go a long way to helping them understand this. The old adage, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” applies here I think. And I do care about them. I firmly believe that if their faith is to be genuine, it cannot be shielded from truth revealed by science. I find they respect this approach.

    In the final analysis, evolution is simply a dynamic mechanism of creation. Neither you nor I have any definitive proof whether God was behind it all or not. That is what faith is all about – believing in a reality that extends beyond that which is described only by science, or not… I cannot prove that that reality exists, but would again respectfully suggest that neither can anyone disprove it. Certainly no credible scientist would claim that science disproves God! So I simply suggest that we be friends and work together to understand our world and each other more fully. The challenge of the BioLogos Foundation, and people like me is to foster genuine science education ( the real stuff!) while being sensitive to those who don’t understand – for whatever reason, religious or otherwise.

    I would welcome further dialogue. Also, if you would like a free copy of my book, leave me your snail mail address, and I will send it along. (A former student – now very successful Ear, Nose, Throat physician made them available.)

    Feel free to share this with anyone you like.
    Rick Colling

  • ZackFord says:

    Rick, thank you for your thoughtful response. I think you make a lot of wonderful points and I applaud your courage and ability to reach students who need to learn from you the most.

    Where I think we differ (and why I write this blog) is that I think too often we are too willing to cater to religious identities. I do not see “faith” as something that necessarily needs to be preserved. While people’s cultural and community identities are important to respect, I see no reason to treat religious beliefs as ideas with any more warrant than any other idea. Thus, I see any idea that has no evidence as meritless, whether it is a “belief” or not.

    It seems to me from the description of your book that you begin with the assumption of God’s creation, but what merit does that assumption have?

    That being said, I don’t agree with the efforts of the BioLogos Foundation because I don’t agree that matters of faith and science can be harmonized as you have suggested. To treat beliefs like they are as valid as ideas rooted in evidence and tested validity seems to me to be a compromise of critical thinking.

    I agree that science can not disprove God. Negatives cannot be proven. That does not mean they are valid ideas worth considering. I’ll admit that while I truly admire what you stand for and what you hope to achieve with your work, I also struggle with the approach that we simply try to understand each other’s world. I would offer that we should hold each other to the same standards of reason and critical thinking.

    Thanks again for your comment and I would also love to continue the dialogue.

  • Christopher Carr says:

    Mr. Colling:

    “…I cannot prove that that reality exists, but would again respectfully suggest that neither can anyone disprove it.”

    I imagine you are familiar with Russell’s Teapot. That one can’t prove that a thing does not exists in no way constitutes evidence for the existence of the thing — it certainly doesn’t mean that the thing is as likely to exist as not.

  • Chris says:

    Hi zachford,

    It seems to me that the gist of your concern with this initiative is that you feel it will encourage matters of faith to bleed over into science – to put both on equal standing, if you will. I think this is a bit of misunderstanding of the goals of Biologos, though, at least as I understand it. The idea is to give Christian students the tools to do honest science while not sacrificing their faith in God. I personally think this is an honorable goal – too many bright and promising Christian students are opting out of scientific fields because they are convinced that science leads to a loss of faith. This is partially true, and not only because creationists/IDers are putting up a false dichotomy, but also because the atheist worldview has seeped so much into science that the two are often hard to separate. For instance, when Dawkins tells us how evolution works, he is speaking of science; when he tells us evolution has no room or need for a God, then he has left the scientific and entered the metaphysical.

    I have read the work of Collins, Colling and Miller, and never felt that any of them wanted to water down science. There is no attempt to try and plug the supernatural into a particular place, only that God is the ultimate origin. As long as you assume that the natural world is discoverable in and of itself, then it doesn’t matter if you believe in God or chance; the science will be honest.

    Finally, I think there is a very good reason that you should care that Christians feel threatened by science. Faith is, simply, not going away, and will continue to be a large force in the US. Sheer numbers and force of will by the evangelical crowd is causing some very bad decisions to be made with respect to education and funding; how much more could we get done if the masses were not threatened by science but excited by it?

  • ZackFord says:

    I have some questions for you, Chris:

    – Why is it an “honorable goal” to protect students from a “loss of faith”?
    – More specifically, why do you see “loss of faith” as a bad thing?
    – How do you define the metaphysical?
    – What proof do you have that such a thing as “the metaphysical” exists or can be measured or described?
    – How can it be measured or tested that “God is the ultimate origin”?
    – What evidence is there to suggest that such an assumption be made as basis for a “scientific” explanation?

    And to respond to your last paragraph, if faith is the main reason people so many are opposed to science and facts, isn’t the problem faith? Wouldn’t we be more successful at helping people learn what we actually know about the world if we deconstructed the power and privilege behind faith rather than tacitly supporting its merit, when intellectually it has none?

  • Chris says:

    Zackford,

    Parts 1 and 2:

    I am a man of faith, and I believe faith is a good thing. I understand that everybody will have crises of faith, but as a Christian the last thing I want to do is for a physical truth to cause that crisis when, in fact, it does not have to. My goal, as I believe is also the goal of BioLogos, is to ensure that we avoid the false dichotomies between science and faith. Note, I DO NOT feel that science needs to protect faith. That is the job of faith institutions and individuals. Science, via the scientific method, must ensure that it stays honest within itself.

    Parts 3 and 4:

    Metaphysical is beyond science and evidence. It does not represent an existing entity; rather, a mindset that allows us to speculate beyond what the evidence would allow. For instance, to claim that God is behind the universe or to claim that there is no place for a God is a claim that lies outside any knowable evidence; thus, must remain in the realm of metaphysics. Science can hypothesize and theorize, but can only definitively say what is supported by evidence.

    Parts 5 and 6:

    We cannot measure or detect whether or not God is the ultimate origin. That is a matter of faith. We also cannot pick and choose between what we determine is supernatural and natural; as scientists, there is only utility in pursuing knowledge with the assumption that it is natural.

    Part 7:

    The problem, IMO, is in the false dichotomy set up by Creationists and supported by vocal atheists between science and religion. I would say faith is an admirable thing; it is easy, especially these days, to point out all faith does wrong, but I see the day-to-day results of faith done right and it is inspiring. For instance, there was a large contingent from my church waiting, with trucks full of food, supplies and medicine, on the fringes of New Orleans waiting to be allowed in, long before FEMA got there. I could tell many stories like that just from my local congregation. There is a lot of good going on in the faith community, but unfortunately that stuff does not get reported. Intellectually, faith has a great deal of merit. I would feel this way even if I didn’t believe, based on what I have seen.

    I do think you have some misconceptions about what BioLogos/theistic evolution/evolutionary creationism actually believes. Which gives you something in common with most people. I hope you continue to read the biologos web site and to talk with some of its experts like Dr. Colling – perhaps you’ll never agree with our views on faith, but I do think you’ll be more comfortable with our contributions to science.

  • ZackFord says:

    Chris, in regards to parts 1 and 2, I do not believe you actually addressed my questions. You BELIEVE that faith is a good thing, but you did not make any argument as to why faith is a good thing. My whole argument is that faith is NOT an intellectually respectable quality, nor are beliefs intellectually respectable ideas merely because they are “beliefs.”

    In parts 3 and 4, you suggest that arguments for and against God both represent “metaphysical” explanations. I strongly disagree with this portrayal of the issues, and I think it demonstrates a lack of understanding for the argument against God. (Read about the Stalemate meme.)Recognizing that there is no reason to live as if there is a God is a conclusion drawn from natural physical evidence and nothing more. It is only ideas that require evidence that does not exist that seem to fit into your definition of “metaphysical.” As with my first two questions, you do not actually explain how anything “metaphysical” could ever be measured or described, let alone what validity such ideas have when juxtaposed with concrete scientific data.

    In regards to parts 5 and 6, you continue to suggest there is reason to think about ideas outside the natural with the same certainty as scientists think about the natural. Given that there is no evidence for anything beyond the natural (as you have agreed), you have not yet offered any worthwhile argument for WHY the supernatural is worth considering at all. Further, you have not demonstrated why any supernatural ideas (or beliefs) deserve any kind of merit or why people should be respected for holding them (and holding fast to them).

    You have suggested that without faith, people would not be charitable, a claim I find to be pretentious and insulting. Please do not mistake belief in a higher power with goodwill and a commitment to community. They are all mutually exclusive qualities. You continue to repeat that “faith is an admirable thing” and that it has a great deal of intellectual merit, but you do not actually articulate any evidence to support these claims.

    I hope you can further elaborate on my questions given the feedback I’ve provided here.

  • Chris says:

    If I’m not answering your questions, it’s probably because I intended to come here and defend Biologos’ efforts and instead am being asked to defend the entire doctrine of faith. 🙂

    On the former, let me give you an entirely secular reason to support it. The reality is there is a very large faith community in the US and abroad, and a great number of people with faith. This is not likely to change anytime in the foreseeable future. This community, for whatever reasons, is skeptical of the scientific community and has the ability to impede its progress. Biologos, and other like-minded organizations and individuals, are the best path towards easing those skepticisms so those impediments will be lessened.

    On the latter – I have a number of reasons that I feel faith is a valuable thing in society. I patently DO NOT believe that charity requires faith, and I did not imply this above. In fact, it’s not unusual for nonbelievers to accompany some of the missions that my church engages in – an agnostic doctor and some non-Christian teens accompanied the group to a month-long trip to Sri Lanka to rebuild a village after the tsunami. In New Orleans, an atheist couple approached our group, looking for a place where they could be of help (and were plugged in). My personal Christian belief is that all people are made in the spiritual image of God, and contain some of God’s goodness. What I will say, though, is that most people need a way to “plug in” to be charitable on any significant level, and the faith community provides a very strong presence to make that possible. I also know our Christian faith makes us responsible for the physical and spiritual well-being of others.

    Your arguments seem to be grounded in seeing no justification for faith. To be honest, I don’t know how to explain this to you. Can I tell you about the transforming power that I’ve seen faith has had on drug addicts, alcoholics, abuse victims, sexually abused women and others? Can I tell you about the power I’ve seen a church can have to bring positive change to a community? Can I tell you about the empty lives I’ve seen filled? I’m sure you’d be skeptical. I’m sure you’d give me examples of lives that have been ruined. This is why, in the end, I cannot base my value of faith on tangible or rational arguments. In the end, faith has made me better. It has also done so for many others in my life. I have seen prayers answered and unexplained miracles in my life, and I have felt comfort when I have faced some incredibly difficult times. That is what I know.

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